It was one play out of 15 spring practices, but it showed the unshakable confidence University of Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien has developed in junior wide receiver Nick Toon.
During one scrimmage, Toon was blanketed by a cornerback on a deep route down the left sideline. Tolzien saw the one-on-one and never hesitated, launching a pass to Toon, who used his 6-foot-3 frame to jump over the cornerback and make a sensational catch.
“We do it in practice every day,” Toon said afterward about the faith Tolzien showed in him. “Nine out of 10 times, I’m going to make the catch for him. There’s always going to be a fluke in there — wish I could make it 10 out of 10 times.
“It’s just a confidence thing. When you show your quarterback you can make plays like that, he’s going to have faith in you.”
Tolzien made his 15th career start in the 27-14 victory over San Jose State on Saturday, but this one was different. It was the first game Tolzien started without Toon, who didn’t play due to a turf toe injury.
If that wasn’t enough, Tolzien is still getting adjusted to the loss of his other favorite target, tight end Garrett Graham, who was a senior last season.
“Really at UNLV,” offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said of the opener, “(Tolzien) didn’t get tested much in the passing game. I honestly thought, going into (last week), the value of that game, it was going to be his first time playing without his two big security blankets (from) last year, which were Garrett and Nick.
“If you really look at third down, where’s he going? Red zone? Where was he going? Those were the two guys.”
The statistics bear it out. Toon caught 54 passes last year for 805 yards and four touchdowns. His receptions accounted for 38 first downs. He caught 18 passes on third down.
Graham finished with 51 catches for 624 yards and seven touchdowns. His receptions accounted for 35 first downs. He caught 21 passes on third down.
Together, Toon and Graham accounted for 48 percent of the team’s completions, 52 percent of its passing yards and 69 percent of its receiving touchdowns last season.
The passing game was not sharp against San Jose State and Tolzien, predictably, took responsibility. Just like he shouldered the blame for a couple exchange issues — a fumbled snap and a botched handoff — that were not entirely his fault.
Tolzien completed 15 of 22 passes for 191 yards, with an interception and a touchdown, against a shaky secondary that allowed 334 passing yards the previous week against Alabama — and was missing its best defensive back, safety Duke Ihenacho, with a freshman starting in his place.
“I thought some of the details on our routes were off,” Chryst said. “That kind of got (Tolzien) a little bit.”
Toon’s status is still up in the air for Saturday’s game against Arizona State. Based on the way he sounded after missing practice on Tuesday, he still has a ways to go.
“Physically, I can’t go right now,” Toon said. “I want to be out there. I hate sitting and watching. As soon as I’m physically able to go out and practice and play, I’ll do so.”
Senior David Gilreath, the other starting receiver, is almost certainly out this week after suffering a concussion early in the third quarter against San Jose State while fielding a punt.
That leaves seniors Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson and redshirt freshmen Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Duckworth as the likely top four receivers.
“That’s just another opportunity for other guys,” Tolzien said. “You can look at it as a downer, but I don’t think anyone on our offense does. Next man in, there’s no excuses and the next guy’s got to step up.”
While Abbrederis did some good things, catching five passes for 58 yards, it’s not the same as having Toon on the field.
Chryst pointed to an 18-yard completion to Jefferson on third-and-5 from the San Jose State 23-yard line early in the fourth quarter. It was the same play and same coverage as the 21-yard completion to Toon in the opener, when he fumbled at the UNLV 1-yard line. But Abbrederis wasn’t open, so Tolzien had to go elsewhere.
“Jared wasn’t the win (against the defensive back) that Nick was,” Chryst said.
Toon expressed “full confidence” in the abilities of the other receivers, if he can’t play. Yet, he also acknowledged it won’t make Tolzien’s job any easier.
“They are able to get the job done and I think we’ll be fine,” Toon said. “But, obviously, when the guys that Scott spent the majority of time working with last year — as well as throughout camp — aren’t out there, it makes it difficult. We’ve just got to play with what we have, get everyone healthy and get back rolling.”